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Philippine Air Force (PAF)


Philippine Military aviation got off to a false start when the US entered World War I. With hardly any air power to match the Germans - who, through the services of Dutchman Anthony Fokker, had already fitted fighters with synchronized machineguns - the Americans set out to produce 366 airplanes and to train a pool of pilots.

Volunteers from the Philippine National Guard were accepted for flight training at Fort Mills on Corregidor Island, home of the 1st Company, 2nd Squadron of the US Army Signal Corps. Unfortunately for these brave, adventurous men, colonials could only fly on borrowed wings. In early February 1918, Maj. Joseph EH Stevenot, commander of the National Guard's aviation section, advised Governor General Francis Burton Harrison that the Filipino aviation students had completed their ground schooling and were ready for flight training. On learning this, Harrison promptly cabled the US Army adjutant general and requested flight training in the United States for 35 of the students who would then compose a Filipino squadron. On 15 March, the reply came: No planes were left for use by Filipinos, as thousands of Americans had already been accepted for training.

As a result, the aviation section had to be disbanded. The pilot trainees were instead assigned to the Artillery Corps at Fort Stotsenberg (later renamed Clark Air Base) in Pampanga, as part of the Philippine division of the National Guard. After the war, the National Guard itself was deactivated, as the United States no longer had any immediate need for military manpower support from the Philippines.

The end of World War I also found the US Army and Navy with surplus aircraft and equipment overseas, which they were reluctant to ship back to the States. In another of those painful ironies in the history of the Air Force, these surplus aircraft and equipment were sold instead to the Philippine Militia Commission, which at that time still had no pilots and aircraft maintenance personnel to speak of.

To the credit of the Militia Commission, it seized the opportunity to begin building a Filipino air unit by accepting the US offer. At the same time, it hired the services of the Curtiss School of Aviation (established by Major Stevenot) to provide flight training to 33 students at Camp Claudio (named after a Filipino soldier killed during World War I) in Paranaque. The first Filipinos to undergo actual flight training consisted of 10 Philippine Constabulary (PC) officers, led by topnotcher 1st Lt. Porfirio Zablan; and 23 recruits from the National Guard, including Lt. Leoncio Malinao, a 25-year-old Cebuano, who on 26 April 1920 became the first locally-trained Filipino military pilot to go on a solo flight.

The professionalism forebears of today's Air Force officers and enlisted personnel could only have been a remarkable breed. After all, to be one or the other, pilot or pioneer of any endeavor is a feat in itself. To be both is twice so. For pioneers and pilots are assumed to possess exceptional daring - that distinct blend of uncommon bravery and a highly developed taste for adventure and risk-taking. In the case of pilots, the qualities that count must include lightning reflexes and a mastery of what one retired ace military pilot calls the "geometry of flying." In the case of pioneering pilots, one must marvel even more at the extra daring it takes to pursue a high-risk profession where no kin or countryman ever ventured before.

In June 1920, the Curtiss School decided to hold an air exhibition at the Luneta to show off its students. The exhibition, which demonstrated the brand-new pilots' flying skills as they executed stalls, spirals, slips and tailspins, so impressed the spectators that the idea of an inter-island air service caught fire.

On 7 July 1920, the Council of State approved the establishment of the Philippine Air Service (PAS) to provide air mail and passenger flights between Manila and the ports of Cebu, Iloilo and Zamboanga. Unfortunately, this fledgling unit folded its wings after a year for lack of colonial funds.

Another 14 years passed before a Filipino would revive the dream of Philippine aviation. After taking his oath of office as PC chief, Brig. Gen. Basilio Valdez declared his intention to create an aviation unit within the Constabulary. On 2 January 1935, he formally organized the Philippine Constabulary Air Corps (PCAC) primarily to lend reconnaissance support to the PC's peace and order missions.

On 23 December 1935, the Philippine Commonwealth legislature passed the National Defense Act, which provided for the creation of the Philippine Army. With the 6,000-strong Constabulary forming the nucleus of the Army, the PCAC became the Philippine Army Air Corps.

Over the next six years, the PAAC would concentrate on training pilots and acquiring aircraft and facilities. Local flight instructors quickly learned the ropes and provided quality training to both Filipinos and Americans. One prominent pupil was a certain Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower, who took special flying lessons during his Philippine tour of duty as part of the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Shortly before the war broke out in 1941, the PAAC was inducted into the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). By then, the Corps had 142 pilots, 1,700 enlisted men and four airfields: Zablan (now Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City), Maniquis (Nueva Ecija), Batangas and Lahug (Cebu).

Twelve hours after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, its air armada of 108 bombers and 84 Zero fighters attacked Clark Field. Arrayed like sitting ducks on the ground were two squadrons of B-17 bombers, one squadron of P-40 fighters and other aircraft. Only two of the 20 B-17s based at Clark were off the ground. The day after, the PAAC's 6th Pursuit Squadron, based at Batangas and commanded by Capt. Jesus Villamor, was virtually the only aviation unit of the USAFFE left intact.

Overmatched in number, firepower, speed and quality of aircraft, Villamor's gallant squadron - flying six obsolete Boeing P-26 fighters - managed to stall the Japanese air offensive in two famous dogfights over Manila and Batangas, shooting down two enemy fighters and one bomber. All but one of the amazing Filipino pilots, 1st Lt. Cesar Basa, survived the epic aerial battle.

Villamor, who went on to do crucial intelligence work in preparation for the return of the Allied forces from Australia, would receive the Distinguished Service Cross; his men, the US Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. After the war, the Philippine government would honor Villamor with the Medal of Valor and bestow the Gold Cross with Bronze Anahaw Leaf on the valiant pilots of the 6th Pursuit Squadron.

Notwithstanding such heroics, Japan's air superiority eventually reduced the air assets of the PAAC and the USAFFE on the islands to a handful of fighters. The PAAC was eventually ordered to destroy its last planes and join the retreat to Bataan.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:07:56 ZULU